Kaylene Kerber – Opinion Columnist
To complain about a song that was released 33 years ago seems irrelevant, but when one of your favorite artists is recognized for some of their less interesting works, you can’t sit back in silence. Additionally I wasn’t an opinion writer 33 years ago, but I am given the opportunity now.
I believe that the worst Billy Joel song is “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” both musically and in meaning. Many would argue that what makes a song good is its influence on the public. Initially “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was met with success, going triple platinum. For comparison, “Vienna” only made it to platinum. However, many artists from Arianna Grande to Ben Platt have done covers of Vienna. Conversely, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” really doesn’t allow for covers as its lyrics start from Billys’ birth to the song’s release date.
However, there are countless parodies of the song instead. For example, The Office has a scene where the character Dwight Schrute makes light of the fact that another character started an office fire by singing “Ryan started the fire!” He then mumbles the rest of the words before repeating the main line again. This shows that the song as a whole is unmemorable, only its cultural impact remains.
Billy Joel songs usually discuss universal feelings or ideas. For example, “Vienna” is about overburdening yourself, “Piano Man” is about unfulfilled dreams, and even “The Longest Time” talks about hope to love again. What universal thoughts or emotions does “We Didn’t Start the Fire” offer? It is a history lesson that starts with Billy Joel’s birth and ends with the release date of the song. One could counter that the universal emotion is that the youth are blamed for the problems of the world and that the world has always been a mess. This is a message that felt disingenuous from a then 40 year old man, and feels even more disingenuous now.
When researching the history of the song itself I learned that Billy Joel wrote the song after a younger musician in the studio remarked that nothing happened in the 50s when Billy Joel was younger. I agree it is cool to think of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as a diss track but it could also be seen as an older man upset about the youth himself.
In comparison, “Vienna” is a song that was written full of passion and thoughtful observation. Billy Joel talks about how the people of Vienna, unlike the people of the US, care about their elderly and it is also a song about his own father who disappeared to Vienna. In an interview he confessed that “Vienna” acted as a tribute to his father and the city he left them for.
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” isn’t fraught with meaning.
Now to address the other part of the message, the world has always been a mess. Many people find reassurance in the fact that every decade has its challenges. This observation doesn’t change the situation because it is a problem that can’t be fixed by only one perspective. Many of the earlier examples of emotions: overburdening yourself and unfulfilled dreams are things that you, yourself, can change.
Billy Joel songs can inspire and help you see your own patterns. In Billy Joel’s “Vienna” he sings “you know that when the truth is told, that you can get what you want, or you can just get old”. This shows the logic and patterns behind overburdening yourself and inspires you to find a work–life balance. The world’s patterns can make a person disillusioned. For example in the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” Billy sings “JFK – blown away, what else do I have to say?” furthering the sentiment that there is nothing that we can do about the state of the world.
One could argue that the song “Uptown Girl” also deals with problems outside of one’s own control like classism, however within the song he proclaims: “she’s got a choice” between a downtown and uptown man, that an individual love can overcome classism.
Others would mention that “We Didn’t Start the Fire” deviates from his usual soft rock with poetic storytelling. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” has about twelve instruments in comparison to “Just the Way You Are” which only has six instruments. It really is a testament to the lyrics; Billy Joel must have felt that he needed the lyrics of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to be masked by instruments.
Don’t believe me? Billy Joel himself feels regretful about his song saying that “[it’s] one of the worst melodies I ever wrote” in an article from Kane. Although Billy is kind of a music snob, it says a lot when even he can admit his song’s flaws. The only potential that “We Didn’t Start the Fire” has is memeablity lacking the heart that all of his other songs possess.